September 2009

A Tour Of Bluffton with Mayor Sulka

Author: Courtney Naughton

What do you get when you mix a pile of old tires, a half-naked mannequin, and a butcher’s knife? Believe it or not, these are just a few of the things you may find at Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka’s favorite haunts. I recently ventured out with Mayor Sulka to check out her favorite Bluffton spots—three old and three new. Each comes with a story of its own.

The first person Lisa met when she moved to Bluffton was Jeffrey Robinowich, owner of Morris Garage and Towing Service, or “Morris Variety,” as Lisa called it. And that was our first stop. The self-proclaimed “we come highly wreck-a-mended” shop has saved the mayor many a time. In fact, she tells me that if she is in trouble, she calls Jeffrey before she calls her husband. Lisa has been counting on Jeffrey for years. She likes his approach to business saying, “He doesn’t take advantage of a person’s misery.” If you have ever been stranded on the side of the road in a small town with no help in sight, you may be able to relate.

Morris Garage comes complete with grease, coveralls, old tires and an ever-smiling staff. Moses, who has been there for 30 years, was quick to introduce himself. And Jeffrey’s son, Sam, shouted out a hello from the back where he sat with his best girl, Jade, on his lap. Jade is the resident hound dog and vice president of customer relations. Apparently an enormous snake rounds out the crew at Morris, but rather than confirm that fact by checking his tank, I decided to high tail it outside.
Our next stop was The Squat and Gobble. Lisa told me that this was the only place to sit and have a cup of coffee way back when—meaning when the mannequin had no underwear, “Casanova” Sebastian owned the iconic spot and coffee was just 50 cents a cup.

Since then, Lisa has stood in line with the rest of the town on a Sunday morning, waiting for a table to clear. These days, though, when current owner, Paul Riganas spots her in line, he invites her to eat at “his table”—one of the perks of being mayor.

Lisa and her family still walk over on Thursday nights for the “best cheeseburger” in town. And her Sunday morning go-to meal is still two eggs over-easy with grits and white toast. When asked about her breakfast standard she says, “It’s just how I was raised.”

As we hopped back in the car for old spot number three, Lisa reminisced about Prosperity, the small town in South Carolina where she grew up. She says Bluffton reminds her of Prosperity—different people, but the same characters.
And that brought us to The Store. In 1993, when Lisa moved to Bluffton, it was where everyone went to buy a gift. “It was the ‘go-to’ spot, where you knew you could find something unique. It’s quaint, quirky, small-town and cute all at the same time.”

When the Bluffton Christmas Parade kicks off, you’ll find Lisa and her family in their same ol’ locale, year after year, in front of The Store. Out front—and year round—you’ll also find artwork, furniture, watering cans and other antiquities scattered about and all for sale. In any other town in the U.S. these items would disappear overnight, but not in Bluffton, and at that, I marvel.

We walked from The Store up Calhoun Street to the new Carson Cottages, the first “new” spot on the mayor’s list. Eventually there will be nine “cottages” occupying the space. For now you’ll find Gigi’s Boutique & Outfitters named for the grandmother of the Vaux sisters—Mary Gwinn, Emily and Anna Pepper—who own the store and, in my opinion, are three of the nicest Bluffton chicks you’ll ever meet. Their mama taught them well. An art gallery is also on the map and coming soon the much anticipated (by me) Old Town Dispensary i.e. bar—a shout out to the town’s liquor store that sat a few hundred feet away in the 1850s.

Back in the car, we scooted across May River Road to the Promenade—another Old Town spot in the midst of a building boom. We wandered past Corks and what the mayor referred to as the “American Dream” for proprietors, Josh and Gabby; took a peek in the newly-opened Captain Woody’s; and checked on the progress of Bluffton BBQ, which will finally have a place to call home after being on wheels (and in a caboose) for the better part of its existence.

Watching all of the activity, Lisa commented that “how it has evolved is even better than where it started.” The economy tweaked the plans for the Promenade and how it would be developed. But the result is even better than the original plan—the smaller scale buildings help this new spot maintain the Old Town feel.

As we departed for our final destination, the mayor revealed that she is a “meat snob,” so Scott’s Meats was the obvious choice for the grand finale. When Lisa and her husband, John, first started dating, their date night consisted of Hill Street Blues, wine and sandwiches. Since then, she has developed a little thing for sandwich meat (and for her hubby!). And in her mind, no one knows meat better than Jeff Scott.

Scott’s Meats is hard-core butchery with more knives than I felt comfortable around (which is why I stayed in front of the counter). But, it isn’t only about your favorite cut. You can find fresh breads, spices, flip flops and I suspect a little town gossip at the small shop that stands in the shadow if its big sign.

The sign on this site has a lot of history. In the 1960s it was neon, and according to Jeff, “you could just about see if from Pritchardville; it was that big and bright.” The sign that stands now was the only part of the property that survived a fire in 1973. But history will soon get a fresh coat of paint, thanks to recent approval from the Town. Look for the Scott’s name up there in red, white, and blue.

Before I knew it, our three-hour tour was over, and we were headed back to Town Hall to drop off our mayor/tour guide for the morning. Lisa summed up all that is happening in Bluffton in just a few words, “I am happy with it.”

And as I drove off, I found myself humming the old Girl Scout tune: “Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold.” And that is kind of how I feel about Bluffton. There is so much old that needs to be preserved, but there is no reason that it can’t happen in harmony with everything new.

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